Positive experiences - why bother?

Emma Bridger

Minutes
30 Mar 2023
Employee Experience
Human centred
Empathy
EX design
It seems obvious to say that positive experiences are a good thing, for both employees and businesses. You might be interested to learn that there is some pretty compelling evidence from the world of positive psychology to back this up. And the science helps to explain why a positive EX is a good thing.

Positive psychology

Positive psychology is a branch of psychology which has been around for about the last twenty years. Positive psychology is a movement within the academia of psychology. It was originally born out of Martin Seligman’s research on learned helplessness. While positive psychology does not claim to have discovered the value of a positive approach and thinking, it does enable us to understand how to help people flourish and thrive. Positive psychology takes a strength-based approach, seeking to learn from what works, rather than always focusing on what doesn’t work, and how problems can be fixed. This is a subtle, but significant, shift in the way we approach and think about human behaviour.
There is some robust science that explains why a positive experience drives not only employee engagement, but positively impacts a range of business outcomes. Shawn Achor, an educator, speaker, and consultant, spent 12 years at Harvard researching what makes people happy. In his book, The Happiness Advantage, he describes how positive experiences at work leads to improved performance. In his research, he found that that being in a happy or positive state is actually a precursor to success, rather than the result of such success. These findings help to explain why positive experiences have an impact on subsequent performance in organisations.

What does the science show?

The science shows that there is a fairly simple, scientific explanation as to why this is the case. When we have a positive experience, we experience positive emotions, and we observe a rise in levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters; chemicals released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. These particular chemicals not only make us feel good, but they also enhance the learning centres within our brains. These learning centres help us to organize new information more effectively, retain information for longer, and retrieve information more quickly. They also enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which then allow us to think quicker, more creatively, see things in a different way, improve our problem solving capability, and analyse complex information more skilfully. To summarise, when we experience positive emotions, the release of associated chemicals enables us to perform at a higher level, which then leads to improved performance.

There are numerous studies which provide evidence to back up these claims. For example, in one study, doctors who were primed to be in a positive state before making a diagnosis showed three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral, stressed or negative state. They also made accurate diagnoses 19% faster. A team of positive psychologists conducted a meta-analysis to further test this hypothesis, looking at over 200 studies on 275,000 people world-wide. What they found was that in nearly every domain the findings were the same, positive emotions lead to success.

Conclusion

Obviously priming employees to be in a positive state before they perform critical tasks each and every time they perform them would be fairly intensive. However, creating a workplace that develops, supports and enhances the employee experience means that there is much higher likelihood of employees experiencing positive states and emotions.

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